Should we be having a referendum at all?

As the UK moves towards a referendum on its voting system there is a lot of justified grumpiness about the exercise but is it the fault of having referendums or those who called it?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
18 April 2011

The arguments over the referendum are getting hot under the various collars. I am for a 'Yes' vote and will be speaking at the Intelligence Squared debate on the 26th April. I'll be opposing the only current MP who I have actually canvassed for - David Davis - in his famous liberty by-election and I'll be on the same side as two well-creased pundits who I have, er, disagreed with ever so slightly... David Aaronovich and Peter Kellner, who has just written today in his YouGov blog why he thinks that there shouldn't be a referendum on the issue at all. He details how hopeless he thinks communication has been and how poor voter understanding is - and he complains that while the referendum asks one question voters will answer different ones. His conclusion is that "Parliament should have decided this issue, just as it has decided every other reform in the evolution of British democracy".

It seems to me that this is factually incorrect. The London mayor, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments were significant reforms that were decided by referendums. The issues were clear and principled and the outcomes confirmed this.

In his previous week's YouGov post, called 'Democracy on Trial' no less, Kellner looked at voter's esteem for politicians and was appalled at the verdict:

In today’s Britain, with universal adult franchise, we voters have the power collectively to elect politicians that we believe have the right skills and values to make decisions on our behalf. Yet only eight per cent of us think that the politicians we choose are there on merit.

This is a profoundly shocking finding. It suggests a vast gulf between the political classes and the general public. Politicians are supposed to represent us but most of us regard them as occupying their own separate world of networks and scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours connections.

A good reason, perhaps, not to fall back on Parliament? And surely a reason why referendums are needed for unless and until politicians learn to trust voters, the voters will not trust them.

But is this a referendum that puts trust in voters? In a scathing assault on the campaigns, Alex Massie has just blogged in in today's Spectator that the AV referendum discredits referendums.

His conclusion,

I doubt more than one in twenty of the arguments made - either for or against AV - in this campaign have any substance to them at all. Instead there's been such an endless parade of misinformation, dishonesty, special pleading and scaremongering that one wonders if this country's political and media classes can be trusted to hold any further referendums on any subject at all.

Surely the conclusion should be: "one wonders if this country's political and media classes can be trusted... on any subject at all".

It is not the fault of referendums that this one is so confused; it is the fault of the chronic political setup that produced it, as vividly set out [later addition] by Mary Riddell in the Telegraph, who describes the Yes and No camps as "reduced to the gibbering fury of suburban neighbours warring over a leylandii hedge", while Cameron's appeal to "gut instinct" seems, she suggests, "to assume that the British voter has the intellectual acumen of a lightly sedated chimpanzee".   

To help keep readers on their toes OurKingdom's coverage will be intensifying - hopefully with real information, honesty and trusty if old-fashioned mongering. Tomorrow there will be a long post from Anthony Painter with lots of graphs against AV and - we hope - one in favour from Guy Lodge who has just co-authored an ippr report that makes AV sound sexy.

Meanwhile, as the Guardian reports that support for AV is collapsing I am off to put my 'Yes' sticker in the window.

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